Ireland 12 Wales 16: Gatland is crowned by grateful nation

Ireland 12 (Pens: O'Gara 4) Wales 16 (Try: S Williams Con: S Jones< Pens: S Jones 2, Hook)
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The Independent Online

If you believe Warren Gatland, the challenge is all too straightforward in Cardiff on Saturday. Lose by no more than 19 points to the French and the Six Nations Championship trophy will be heading to Wales. To know Gatland, however, is to accept that ambitions will be ever so slightly more positive when his boys run out to expectant frenzy at the Millennium Stadium.

It is inconceivable to think that a side as buoyant as Wales will be satisfied with anything less than the Grand Slam to go with the Triple Crown they earned here. In each game under their new favourite Kiwi they have improved; and in each game their confidence has swelled extraordinarily as a result.

More than a few "experts" on the other side of the Severn may still be labouring under the misapprehension that the Dragonhood are occupying a flattering position in the table. But Wales know exactly where they are and to where they are heading. If they continue at this rate of progress, the Gatland gang will be contenders for many years to come.

What was so impressive about this success was the manner in which the forwards responded to Ireland's one-dimensional tactics and beat them at what has never been the Welsh game. Sure, little Shane Williams was to steal the spotlight, but then that twinkle-toed freak could steal the spotlight off Tom Jones at the Christmas party of the Pontypridd Women's Institute. "Ickle Shane" did the tap-dancing while Ryan Jones and his troupe did the clodhopping. Suffice to say, the men in green were left running in ever-decreasing circles.

The final scoreline was a perversion of the visitors' dominance. It would have been a crime if Ireland had prevailed, although Wales would only have been able blame their own crimes if the unthinkable had come to pass. Two yellow cards usually spell curtains in Test match rugby, but all the misdemeanours of Michael Phillips and Martyn Williams spelt to the home support was some cruelly false hope.

In his after-match reflections Eddie O'Sullivan sounded like a desperate man trying to convince frustrated employers that everything was not so bad. "We lost a very close Six Nations match on the basis they scored a try and we didn't," the Ireland coach said. "It's as simple as that." If he genuinely feels that, then either he was not watching or he should book in for laser surgery.

The problems are stacking up, not least in the sad form of his captain, Brian O'Driscoll, who will miss the England match after another wretched afternoon was compounded by a hamstring tear.

Still, it was tempting for even the Welsh romantics to look at Shane's magic moment and accord it defining status. In the first half Shane Horgan had come within an inch of putting Ireland 13-0 up, but Phillips' remarkable haul-down tackle saved Wales and allowed his diminutive pal the glory of the day's only try. How glorious it was to prove.

Perhaps it is because of his size, because of his schoolboy frame and the knowledge that he is overcoming the odds, doing it one last time for the small guy. But something very special always seems about to happen when the Ospreys wing receives the ball. In the 52nd minute he skipped off his right foot, stuck out his left hand and left two Ulstermen, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe, munching grass. His celebration did not befit his feat in equalling Gareth Thomas's Wales try-scoring record of 40 – he went to kick the ball but missed. That's Shane for you. Even in his element he seems worryingly vulnerable.

As it was, he had just scored his first try against Ireland and that leaves only France, among the leading nations, against whom he has yet to touch down. "Imagine doing it and breaking the record in a Grand Slam victory in Cardiff," he said. "That would be unbelievable, wouldn't it?" Actually, it would be apt. There are other players, indeed other Welshmen, who have rivalled him for "best" performer in this Championship, but there has only been, and will only be, one "star" performer.

Just as there has been but one coach whose stock has risen. In fact, Gatland's reputation has soared. Together with Shaun Edwards, he has performed a makeover on the same bunch of players dumped out of the World Cup by Fiji. The defence and the pack have been revolutionised, although the entire rugby world should also give thanks for resurrection of one Gavin Henson.

Mr Charlotte Church once more produced a supremely rounded display of maturity and control and can now lay claim to one of the more startling records in the Championship's long history. He has started nine games and has been on the winning side every time. In 2005 he began all five games and that, of course, was when Wales last won the Grand Slam. Ten out of 10 would fit Henson's contribution perfectly. His 70-yard touch-finder into the wind, just as Ireland threatened to free themselves from their shackles, was worth the admission fee, as was a wince-provoking hit on Bowe.

The latter was an act of controlled aggression that Phillips and Martyn Williams might do well to replay after their yellow cards for a daft knee in the back and a cynical trip respectively. The rumbling sound reverberating through the Valleys last night was that of Gatland readying himself for today's now traditional brutal debrief. The former All Black takes indiscipline personally. "I wanted to shoot myself when I saw the ref's card," said Phillips. That would have been the easy way out.

In his defence, the scrum-half can point to 70 minutes at the centre of the action. Gatland acknowledged Phillips' influence and even praised the manner in which O'Sullivan carried himself in a build-up during which Gatland's bitterness at his Irish sacking six years ago was the meat of every preview. "I respect a lot of things Eddie said; I thought he was very professional," he said. "Perhaps that is something I could learn myself."

It would take a brave man to suggest it, now Gatland has an entire nation in his corner. Come Saturday, their support could be truly terrifying. "The Triple Crown is great, as would be the Grand Slam, but we will know what the points difference is so we know what we need to do against France," said Gatland. "Like I've said, though, our main goal is simply to win the Championship." Yeah, we believe you, Warren.

Ireland: R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll (capt; all Leinster), A Trimble, T Bowe (both Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Wasps); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, D Leamy, D Wallace (all Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: L Fitzgerald (Leinster) for O'Driscoll, 71; B Jackman (Leinster) for Best, 71; T Buckley (Munster) for Hayes, 71.

Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Scarlets), T Shanklin (Blues), G Henson, S Williams (both Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips ; G Jenkins (both Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones, I Gough, A-W Jones, J Thomas (all Ospreys), M Williams (Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Replacements: J Hook (Ospreys) for S Jones, 65; D Jones (Ospreys) for A Jones, 72; G Delve (Gloucester) for R Jones, 75.

Referee: W Barnes (England).